It is an intriguing story and one which speaks to the nature of education, especially in conjunction with Paul’s great hymn of praise to love which was read last week in Chapel. We see “in a glass darkly,” yet we see, albeit imperfectly and unclearly. “We go up to Jerusalem,” Jesus says, expressing in a metaphor what belongs to the universal journey of our souls into an understanding of reality. Going up to Jerusalem is at once about the spiritual practices of ancient Israel but also extends to the concentration of that journey into the span of the forty days of Lent in the Christian understanding.
The story concentrates for us some of the essential features of our lives in terms of desire. What do we seek? To seek is to want, to desire. But what? Somehow something of what we seek has to be known in some way or another. To desire is to have some sense of what we want. And there is the greater question about wanting what is right and good without which “all loving [is] mere folly,” as Shakespeare puts it (‘As You Like It’). There is a necessary and crucial interplay between our willing and our knowing present in this story.
Jesus tells the disciples about what going up to Jerusalem will mean. It will mean all of the terrors of his passion and death; in short, the sufferings of Christ which reveal the sin and evil of our humanity. Such things show us the radical disorders of our humanity; not just the incompleteness of our loves, but their destructive capacity as well. Jesus tells us these things but, as Luke says about the disciples (and us), “they understood none of these things … neither knew they the things which were spoken.” Such is the reality of the educational experience. Things are spoken and taught but are they learned? What does it take to learn? It requires the journey of education in which we confront over and over again our ignorance and not-knowing. Education never ends. It is not a finite product, a thing to be possessed. It is life-long.
What it takes to learn is seen in the figure of the blind man in this story sitting as a beggar by the way-side near Jericho, the image biblically speaking of the earthly city in contrast to Jerusalem, the symbol of the heavenly city. “Hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant.” That is significant. It shows that he wants to know what is going on. In discovering “that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by,” he cries out incessantly and will not be silenced even by the disciples who rebuke him. “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me,” he cries.
We are like the blind man on the road in this story which is the reason why it is read on the Sunday just before the Ash Wednesday beginning of Lent. He is blind and yet he sees; like us, perhaps, “in a glass darkly.” That is to say, he knows something. He knows three things which we, in turn, need to know, paradoxically in order to come to know more fully; in short, to know even as we are known, as Paul puts it in his great hymn to love which accompanies this Gospel story. He knows, first, that he is blind; secondly, he knows that he wants to see, to know more fully; and, thirdly, he knows that the power of healing and sight belong to God which he ‘knows’ is in Jesus.
This is the power of the story. What he knows in this sense is drawn out of him by Jesus. What wilt thou? Jesus asks him. What do you want? The journey of education constantly requires the articulation of our desires, on the one hand, and their purification, on the other hand, meaning to want what is rightly to be wanted. To put it in another way, the journey is about purgation and illumination without which there is no perfection or union with what is most to be wanted. What is wanted or desired is to be known.
This means that education requires the constant clarification of our desires in the light of truth, in the light of the things that are before us to be known. They may be taught but to be learned requires the desire to learn, to know. To learn requires the persistence that the blind man shows in this story. We can only be opened to the truth by truth itself but only if we want it, only if we seek it. The blind man here knows that he wants to know. Do we? Or have we despaired of the intellectual and spiritual journey?
In the profoundest sense and in ways that connect to all of the great religious and philosophical traditions, each in their different ways, it is an ethical journey. What we seek, we seek together. It is not merely individual and private. “We go up,” Jesus says; we, not I, and not just you. The journey is to and with the very principle of truth and understanding which we seek and learn to seek more clearly. In receiving his sight, it is not just the blind man who rejoices, “glorifying God”; it is also “all the people, who when they saw it, gave praise unto God.” Education is social and belongs to the community of spirit and mind. It connects us to one another through the light of learning but only if we, like the blind man, want to see and know.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy